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Germany

"Designer Baby" Gets Go-Ahead

A couple in Northern Ireland have been given permission to proceed with a controversial stem-cell therapy which could save their young son. The process includes the creation of an embryo to provide life-saving cells.

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British legislation allows the use of embryos in stem cell therapy

A couple in Northern Ireland have been permitted under a recent law in Great Britain to pursue the process which would lead to the first "designer baby," an embryo which would provide cells that could help treat the family's seriously ill three-year-old son.

To look at Joshua Fletcher, one would not see any signs of the illness. But he has a rare and potentially fatal blood disease called Diamond Blackfan anemia. In two years time, Joshua will be too old for the stem-cell therapy which could keep him alive. So for his parents, news that the treatment has been authorized is like the revocation of a death sentence.

"The chances are 95 percent in favor that Joshua with be cured by this therapy," said his father, Joe Fletcher. "If we do not do this, he will soon die." This new chance of life will come from an artificially created embryo, designed to provide cells for Joshua which in turn will produce the healthy red blood cells that will keep him alive.

The possible treatment was made a reality in the UK in July when legislation was passed to lift restrictions on Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD). Until then, it was illegal to biologically alter an embryo unless it was ill. The new law makes it legal to generate an embryo for the purpose of creating stem cells for a sick relative. The Fletchers, who live in a small village in Northern Ireland, will be the first family to benefit from the new legislation.

Opposition to use of embryos

There has been outcry from pro-life groups over the legislation and the granting of permission to the Fletchers. As many as a dozen embryos will be produced through the in-vitro fertilization treatments but only the one with a perfect genetic match will survive and be carried by Julie Fletcher for a full-term of nine months. The destruction of the other embryos is the aspect that has generated most of the opposition.

If the child is survives to full term and is born, blood will be taken from the umbilical cord containing the cells which should cure Joshua. It will be a further six months until the doctors can ascertain whether the treatment was successful or not.

Despite being legal, the method carries its fair share of controversy in Britain as in many other corners of the globe. Julie Fletcher says she does not understand this.

"I will love this child, regardless, but all the more if the therapy should succeed," she told reporters. "We wanted one more child. It's better when we don't leave it up to the genetic lottery and check before whether this baby also carries the signs for the illness or not."

Not designer baby but life saver

Dr Mohammed Taranissi, one of the UK's top fertility doctors and the man who will be in charge of the procedure, told the Belfast Telegraph newspaper: "I do not see any other outcome other than a successful one for the Fletchers. After all, the principle has already been accepted and there is nothing in the Fletchers' case to throw up any problems."

He dismisses the "designer baby" accusations.

"It is not a matter of selecting the color of eyes or choosing between a girl or a boy," he said. "It is a matter of helping a seriously ill child."

Germany must allow research, says Clement

The news from Northern Ireland comes a day after German Economy Minister Wolfgang Clement called for Germany to abandon all restrictions on stem-cell research if it wants to create a strong, home-grown biotech industry.

"We have to allow unlimited research on stem cells in Germany," he told the German parliament in a debate on his ministry's 2005 budget on Thursday.

Germany has allowed limited research into stem cells since 2002 but under strict conditions; for example, the cells must already exist and not be reproduced through cloning. Germany's stance is more liberal than in some countries, such as in the United States where such research is discouraged, but is less liberal than in Britain.

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